A few months ago I wrote about the musical contributions of Pakistanis, both past and present. From rock and pop to traditional Qawali folk, Pakistani musicians have received acclaim at home and abroad. But music from throughout South Asia has also influenced those without cultural roots in the subcontinent.
Ted Watters and Brian Tilley of the American-based group The PashTones were inspired by the language, poetry, and culture of the Pashtun people of South Asia, creating a distinctive blend of traditional American folk and Pashtun music for their first album, The PashTones.
To understand the influences of Pashtun people on The PashTones, it’s important to first understand Pashtun culture. The Pashtuns originate from Afghanistan (making up 35% of the Afghan population), but are also prevalent in Pakistan and influential in Iran, the United Arab Emirates, and the UK. Although most Pashtuns are predominately Sunni Muslims that live in a contiguous area from the eastern border of Iran to Pakistan, the Pashtun people may be one of the most culturally and genetically mixed ethnic groups in the world. A few thousand worldwide even claim Jewish descent, and researchers believe that portions of the 60 major Pashtun tribes descend from the lost tribes of Israel.
World famous for their hospitality and generosity, Pashtuns have also become popular in western news cycles for their conservative social customs and involvement in violent Islamic extremist groups. Pashtuns often get a bad rap within South Asia as well, where they constitute a fourth of the total population of Pakistan. In general, Pashtun culture is quite conservative, and women are often not given the same educational opportunities as men.
But Pashtun culture is also known for some of the most loving traditions anywhere in the world. For example, pashtunwali, the Pashtun cultural code dictates that food, shelter, and water be provided even to enemies traveling through one’s area; and a family’s honor is judged upon how well the guest is treated.
The PashTones are trying to share the beautiful aspects of the Pashtuns. Their music, a combination of original song writing and famous poetry in Pashto, continues the great cultural traditions of a people spread throughout the globe. Ironically, aside from the famous peace activist Abdul Ghaffar Khan, the majority of notable South Asians of Pashtun heritage in politics, sports, and film seem to speak little Pashto. They rarely identify with their Pashtun background and usually embrace the majority language and cultural customs of their city of residence, often in Pakistan or India.
Meanwhile, a couple of white guys in Madison, Wisconsin, have formed a musical group that spreads Pashtun culture. Whether it’s Afghanistan, UAE, or the US, many Pashtun traditions continue on, not always through the lives of Pashtuns themselves.
How do you feel about non-Pashtun, white, American males playing music that originates from South and Central Asia? Are the PashTones helping or hurting the unequal power dynamic between Pashtun people and westerners? Will it take more non-Muslims highlighting the contributions of various Muslim cultures in order for Western society to accept Muslims as “normal?”